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A jury must decide whether a former T-Mobile customer service representative in Maine was sexually harassed by her boss and the telecommunications giant did enough to stop the alleged mistreatment, a federal judge ruled.
The March 12 decision by the U.S. District Court for the District of Maine reaffirms that, in the federal judiciary’s First Circuit, whether a worker was subjected to a sexually hostile work environment is typically a question for a jury. The First Circuit includes all federal courts in Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Puerto Rico, and Rhode Island.
“This is a really important decision in that a jury will be able to evaluate our client’s claims and the company’s defenses” to her claims, counsel for Angela Agganis told Bloomberg Law March 13. That’s particularly important in light of “today’s new awareness of how prevalent sexual harassment is in the workplace,” Valerie Z. Wicks said.
She pointed in part to U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts’ comments in his 2017 Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary. Roberts indicated in the report that workplace sexual harassment has been there all along, it just hasn’t been seen by all, and that no industry is immune, she said. Wicks is with Johnson, Webbert & Young LLP in Augusta, Maine.
“We look forward to continuing to pursue our client’s claims,” she said. A trial date hasn’t yet been set, Wicks said.
T-Mobile didn’t respond March 13 to Bloomberg Law’s request for comment.
Agganis alleges in her October 2015 lawsuit that Gary Rochon touched her against her will on at least three occasions, stared at her in a sexual manner, and violated T-Mobile’s “no fraternization” policy by offering her a ride home the first day they worked together. Rochon was a T-Mobile “coach” and acted as Agganis’ supervisor. “T-Mobile has very strict policies prohibiting supervisors from touching employees,” Agganis says.
The harassment caused her to have a panic attack at work and she took a brief medical leave, Agganis says. She learned while she was off that Rochon had previously worked as a psychiatrist in Wisconsin but lost his license because he had sex with a patient, Agganis alleges in her lawsuit. She also discovered that he had been fired for alleged sexual harassment by a different employer in Maine after relocating from Wisconsin, Agganis says.
She met with human resources to relay what she learned and to say she feared for her safety, Agganis says. But she was told to “just stick it out” until the company’s next realignment of customer service teams, she says. The company realigned its teams and assigned them new coaches every six months.
Agganis says the HR coordinator also presented her with a confidentiality form to sign before T-Mobile would investigate her allegations. The form barred her, under threat of discipline, from discussing her allegations with anyone except company investigators, HR, or corporate counsel, she says. That left her no choice but to quit, Agganis says.
Agganis’ allegations and evidence are sufficient to raise a triable hostile work environment claim under federal and state law, Judge D. Brock Hornby said. Agganis and T-Mobile “hotly contest” whether any sexual harassment actually occurred, which means a jury must decide the matter, the judge said.
Wicks told Bloomberg Law the ruling is consistent with “clear instructions” in the First Circuit that job bias claims, especially sexual harassment allegations, should be evaluated by jurors, who can draw on their life experiences in making a determination.
The jury also must determine whether T-Mobile did enough to prevent the alleged harassment in the first place and to end it once Agganis reported it, the court said. T-Mobile had an anti-harassment policy in place, which it communicated to workers through training, but “disseminating a boilerplate policy is not enough” to establish the affirmative defense to employer liability for sexual harassment by a supervisor, the court said.
Hornby cited evidence that another customer service representative had complained that Rochon was harassing her a few months before Agganis went to the HR department. HR allegedly didn’t talk to Rochon about that complaint, although it did counsel him when the customer service representative later passed along a sexually suggestive cartoon he had sent her.
A reasonable jury could find that the mistreatment of Agganis “and the preceding incident” involving a different customer service representative demonstrated that T-Mobile’s anti-harassment policy “was inadequate,” the judge said.
The court’s ruling on this issue re-emphasizes that having a workplace sexual harassment policy, by itself, won’t insulate an employer from potential liability, Wicks said.
Agganis also alleged that the hostile environment, the company’s failure to respond adequately to her complaint, and the confidentiality form she was given combined to force her to quit—what the law refers to as a “constructive discharge.” But she didn’t raise a jury issue on the claim, the court decided.
T-Mobile offered to transfer Agganis to a different customer service team or to allow her to take a few days off with pay while it investigated her allegations. Agganis passed on both offers and quit immediately.
The first offer might not have been reasonable if she would have been working in the same building as Rochon, whom she feared, but Agganis didn’t justify not taking the paid leave, the court said.
T-Mobile’s investigation ultimately cleared Rochon of any sexual harassment, so Agganis may not have found her work environment had changed at all following the leave, it said. But a worker’s “choice to quit must be evaluated at the time of resignation,” the court said, because “there is no way to know at the time the effect of a path not taken.”
Jeffrey Neil Young and Roberta L. de Araujo of Johnson, Webbert & Young also represent Agganis. Benjamin E. Ford, Richard G. Moon, and Joanna S. Bowers of Verrill Dana LLP represent T-Mobile.
The case is Agganis v. T-Mobile USA Inc., 2018 BL 83140, D. Me., No. 1:15-CV-417, summary judgment denied in part 3/12/18.
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